How to hire a top-notch CTO for a small business

The latest must-have executive is hard to find - and won't come cheap.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 06 Apr 2017
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Future Business

‘Soon, every business will be a technology business,’ to quote a thousand conference speakers and interviewees from the past 10 years. If you’re building a business that’s got a key technology element or are keen to transform your existing company into one that’s more digitally competent then you might be thinking of hiring a CTO.

Don’t expect it to be easy. Demand for people with a CTO’s unique cocktail of technological and business skills is soaring so you can expect a long and exhausting search before finding the perfect candidate. Here are a few pointers to get you started:

Do you really need a CTO?

CTOs have many functions, but what they certainly aren’t is a glorified head of IT. If you’re looking for someone to simply run your computer network, choose which iMacs to buy for the office and deal with staff tech problems then you’re not looking for a CTO. They’re also more than a chief developer to look after the team working on your app. Somebody who takes a CTO role will be expecting to have a say in the strategic direction your company is taking and how technology can help you get there, not just what kit you buy.

What skills do they need?

‘Whilst finding a CTO with high technical ability is important, this role also requires somebody with the right soft skills and cultural fit to support the business vision,’ says Charlie Grubb, MD of Robert Half Executive Search.

That includes communications skills, for a start. There are plenty of extremely talented technologists who will clam up when asked to explain to a layman what they are up to. CTOs don’t need to be extroverted party animals like your marketing department probably are, but they should be very good at articulating themselves – especially if they will have to deal with your clients. ‘It’s no good having all this good information in your head if you can’t share it,’ says Ben Dansie, the CEO and co-founder of marketing firm Omobono, who recruited his first CTO in 2008.


Read more: The rise of the chief digital officer


As the head of the technology function they also need to be good leaders and be commercially aware and business savvy. ‘There’s a lot of choice about technology and they’ve got to be able to help you make the right bets,’ says Dansie. ‘Where do you point your money and resources? They can’t just say, "This one looks cool" – they’ve got to say, "Does this one let us do what we want to do?"’ It's great if they're passionate about tech, but the pursuit of technological perfection shouldn't get in the way of what the business needs. 

‘A lot of small companies will think, well we can hire somebody with technical skills and they can learn all of the soft stuff,’ Dansie adds. ‘But if you want a CTO that’s going to transform your company and add value to your clients, they’ve got to have some big organisational experience to understand the complexity of the world they’re going into.’

Should you use a recruiter?

Recruitment firms are notoriously expensive but you might not have much choice given just how specific the required skills of a CTO are. ‘It’s one of those roles that’s very, very difficult to hire for, so if you just sit there with your worm on the end of the hook you could be waiting a long time,’ says Dansie.

How to assess their tech skills

Even if they’re not going to be in the trenches fiddling with computers every day you want somebody who has a thorough knowledge of tech. But if your background is in sales or finance, how are you supposed to assess that? ‘It’s not like you can give them a coding test, that would be inappropriate,’ says Dansie. He suggests asking a client or another tech-savvy contact to have a chat with candidates to see what they’re made of.


Read more: How to attract the best tech talent


You need to sell yourself

‘With a lot of CTOs it's more a case of them interviewing you. They're on a journey to immortality and world fame if they're good, and so I really think it is a 50/50 process,’ says Dansie. The market for their skills is highly competitive, and any company that isn’t Google or Facebook will have to work damn hard to convince candidates you’re the right employer for them.

‘An organisation needs to have quite a compelling value proposition – why come and work here?’ says James Milligan, MD of recruiter Hays IT. CTOs want to know the business is going somewhere, that they will have a chance to shape the business’s future and an opportunity to develop their skills.

Be prepared to open your wallet

The fact is that people with solid CTO skills are not common and are going to command a serious wage. ‘If you’re not paying the right financial element it’s going to be difficult to attract the right individual,’ says Milligan.

If you’re worried you can’t afford a full-time CTO you could consider hiring one part-time - or using a service like CTO for Hire, which offers ‘virtual CTOs’ for start-ups.

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